Pris­on­ers: A Mus­lim and a Jew Across the Mid­dle East Divide

Jef­frey Goldberg
  • Review
By – October 24, 2011

Jef­frey Gold­berg is now an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and the Wash­ing­ton cor­re­spon­dent for The New York­er, a favorite mag­a­zine of urban left-lean­ing sec­u­lar cos­mopoli­tans. But in the late 1980s, Gold­berg was a dog­mat­ic, hyped-up Zion­ist, a recent col­lege grad­u­ate who was con­vinced that the only place a self-respect­ing Jew should live was a rigid­ly social­ist kib­butz in Israel. He’d been bul­lied and humil­i­at­ed by gen­tiles in the school­yard, and, as is the case with so many oth­er Jew­ish men, that fueled his admi­ra­tion of the mus­cu­lar we-don’t‑take-no-guff Israelis. So in 1990, Gold­berg found him­self as an MP at the Israeli mil­i­tary prison Ket­ziot dur­ing the first Intifa­da. It’s his expe­ri­ence at Ket­ziot and his impres­sions of the men he met there that forms the heart of this book that’s part mem­oir, part reportage. Ket­ziot housed many of the cur­rent and future lead­ers of the Pales­tin­ian resis­tance, and Gold­berg was shrewd and curi­ous enough to devel­op as many rela­tion­ships as he could. Per­haps he knew even then that he wouldn’t remain in Israel, or maybe it was the reporter in him that drew him to talk with the pris­on­ers and try to find out what they were think­ing. That cer­tain­ly wasn’t the atti­tude of his Israeli col­leagues. Gold­berg is refresh­ing­ly non­ide­o­log­i­cal in his descrip­tions of both the Israelis and Pales­tini­ans he meets at Ket­ziot. There’s a gen­er­ous sup­ply of brutes and nin­com­poops on both sides. 

His favorite pris­on­er to talk with is a schol­ar­ly fel­low named Rafiq. Although Rafiq is eva­sive about his polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tions, he has a sense of humor — notably lack­ing among both Israelis and Arabs at Ket­ziot — and Gold­berg seems des­per­ate to make friends. That need­i­ness informs most of this account of their rela­tion­ship. Gold­berg con­tin­ues to see Rafiq when the Pales­tin­ian moves to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. to attend grad­u­ate school and becomes ever more rigid and cen­so­ri­ous about Amer­i­can cul­ture. He seeks him out in Abu Dhabi, where Rafiq moves from the U.S. He vis­its his fam­i­ly in Gaza, always hop­ing to con­nect. While Rafiq and his rel­a­tives are uni­form­ly cour­te­ous, in the famed Arab style, there’s no indi­ca­tion that they ever think of Gold­berg as oth­er than a nosy Jew, some­one who pops up peri­od­i­cal­ly, but with whom they have no real ties. It’s always Gold­berg chas­ing Rafiq, nev­er the oth­er way around. That may be the most pro­found and unset­tling of the impres­sions a read­er takes away from this book. If this is what pass­es for friend­ship between Jew and Mus­lim in the Mid­dle East, we have a bleak future.

Miri­am Rinn has been an edi­tor and writer for decades, recent­ly retir­ing from a posi­tion as com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ag­er for JCC Asso­ci­a­tion. Her writ­ing has appeared in many news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines and she has won numer­ous awards, includ­ing a Rock­ow­er, for her work. She is a reg­u­lar review­er of books, film, and the­ater in print and on the Web, and is also the author of a children’s nov­el called The Sat­ur­day Secret, which has been cho­sen as a selec­tion by PJ Library.

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